Technology and Worship

Something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently is the role of technology in worship. I’ve read some really interesting stuff over the last few years about the relationship between technology, worship, and religion. As a person of faith but also as a person who uses technology quite a bit and works in the technology industry, I’m very conscious of the role both these things play in my life, the ways in which they can sometimes be in conflict, but also the ways in which they come together.

Technology and mindfulness

One of the challenging things about technology is it is having a significant impact on our ability to spend time in what I might call mindfulness, whether that’s in some sort of formal prayer or other worship, or whether it’s a more secular form of meditation or even thoughtfulness. I was talking with someone at an industry dinner last night who said he was noticing more and more people he knew were taking time to meditate. I suspect the reason is technology – and especially our smartphones – are soaking up more and more of our “dead time”, the time we might have otherwise spent being contemplative. I think we’ve lost something as a result of this penetration in our lives by our technology. And yet, technology can be a part of the solution here too. It was interesting to see Craig Federighi use a meditation app during one of his demos at WWDC this year and such apps have been part of making mindfulness available to people without having to go through traditional classes or groups. But we still have to make a deliberate effort to spend time in these activities. There’s a danger we spend so much time caught up in our devices, our social networks, sports scores, and who knows what else, that we never take time to sit back and really think and ponder what’s most important in our lives, whether that be our faith, our families, or our friendships.

Sabbaths and technology

Some of the most interesting articles I’ve read over the years on this subject relate to the ancient concept of the Sabbath and the ways in which observance of a special day set aside each week can help with this over-dependence on technology. In some faiths, the use of technology on these Sabbath days is discouraged or prohibited. So it provides a day of complete disconnection from these distractions and the negative influences they can have on our lives. I certainly try to make my Sabbath a separate day, a day to disconnect from work and from other day-to-day activities like watching TV, sports, social networking, and so on. But what’s interesting is technology is actually still a very important part of my Sabbath worship. I have my Scriptures and other religious materials on my phone and tablet, I use a computer to research and prepare lessons when I have to teach on Sundays, and my church has recently been encouraging members to use digital versions of religious materials rather than costly and environmentally impactful paper books and magazines. This coming weekend, my church will have its semiannual general conference, and we’ll be watching the proceedings in our home through streaming video on our television.

A key challenge associated with all this is the same devices I use for these religious purposes on Sundays are the ones that carry the day-to-day distractions like email, sports scores, social networks, and all the rest. This can make it tough to make the kind of clean break on my Sabbath. I still get interrupted by notifications and prompts to exercise from my Apple Watch. I’ve often wished there was an easier way to switch my devices into a sort of “Sabbath Mode” — I would turn off certain notifications along with activity tracking. But the reality is, as adults, we have to take responsibility to control our own actions and take time to ensure a proper balance between the various facets of our lives. On a monthly basis, I engage in a 24-hour fast from food and drink, and I find this monthly exercise gives me the self-control I need to make wiser choices about what I consume the rest of the month too, and technology “fasts” can be helpful in much the same way.

Families, kids, and technology

I know a lot of parents worry about the amount of time their kids spend absorbed in their devices and their inability to form proper social relationships when so many interactions with their friends are mediated by devices rather than face-to-face. I suspect some of this concern is overblown – each generation has always found its own ways to communicate and stay in touch with friends – but I also think there are some real challenges here. However, I suspect many of us parents need to look inward and ask tough questions about our own behavior with regard to technology before we try to modify our kids’ behaviors. The solution often has to start with us and mitigating our over-dependence on our devices and technology. But technology also has the potential to reconnect us with our kids if it’s used in the right ways – I know a number of parents who have embraced apps their age groups otherwise wouldn’t in an effort to connect with their kids. Here, as in the other areas I’ve talked about, I feel like it’s an over-simplification to paint technology as purely a negative force. So much of the impact it will have in our lives will depend on how we choose to respond to it and the degree to which we decide to remain in control rather than letting these technologies control us.

Religion and technological allegiances

So far, I’ve been talking about religion and worship in a literal sense, but I’d like to close by talking about a less literal application. Edmund Burke talked about the “little platoons” we are all a part of – the groups of which we’re members and towards whom we feel an affinity. He talked about our loyalties to these little platoons as the forerunners of loyalties to larger causes including patriotism. The religious groups to which we belong can be some of these groups and our loyalty to them and our fellow members can be a strong cohesive force. But in the technology market, we frequently see quasi-religious adherence to particular technology companies and ecosystems. Unfortunately, this often manifests itself in negative rather than positive ways. Whether it’s “Fandroids” or “Fanbois”, so many people become so caught up in their allegiance to technology ecosystems they become irrational in their intolerance of other groups. I do wonder to what extent this zealotry is the result of an absence of true religious feeling in today’s world and people’s need to feel part of a group and its associated identity.

Interestingly, I think technology companies sometimes tap into this – Samsung’s commercials for a while poked fun at Apple fans, while Apple itself clearly tries to tap into the loyalty to its products in its own advertising. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that per se — brand loyalty can be a strong differentiator for a company. But technology companies should also be wary of assuming this allegiance to their brands – or antipathy towards other brands – can ever be enough. Just as true religion has to be sustaining and fulfilling to maintain the loyalty of its adherents, technology brands have to continue to deliver the value that generated loyalty in the past if they are to maintain it. We’ve seen major religions and major technology companies wax and wane over the arc of history and I suspect there are lessons to be learned here for technology companies as well.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

392 thoughts on “Technology and Worship”

  1. Back in the early 2000s, monastic practices were becoming quite the trend among the younger groups in stark contrast to the simultaneous movement of making church more contemporary. As someone who works in the live entertainment industry I am always amazed at how much churches are willing to spend on technology. I shouldn’t be, but I always am.

    Professionally it is always engaging. I feel it is an opportunity to contribute. Spiritually I am mostly agnostic to the technology. But i am always opposed to the detractors against technology and the detractors against tradition. Ultimately it is, or at least I think it should be, about finding a way to enhance a spiritual engagement. If the technology interferes, ditch it. If tradition gets in the way, ditch it. I think a church’s endeavors to help their parishioners’ own struggle and help them figure that out is a great idea, with technology sabbaths and such.

    My brother, who was head of IT at a bank, recently retired. I am not all that sure he has sat in front of a computer more than once a month since, maybe less. I think he may have even ditched his smartphone. He has definitely turned off his email capabilities if he still has it. For some it is easier to step back than others,

    I hate religious arguments, spiritual or technological. No one ever changes their mind and there is nothing productive about it. It is never about understanding and is an ego stroke for either side. Sometimes arguers use some abstract notion of “balance” as justification. There is never balance in such an argument, just a breaking of the see-saw at the fulcrum.


    1. “There is never balance in such an argument, just a breaking of the see-saw at the fulcrum.”

      Great insight. Thank you.

  2. Jan. I appreciate your article. It does seem we are forever building things that threaten to dominate us. We love extensions of ourselves.

    You might enjoy Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath. “The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.” p14

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